Magnets attract harsh regulation

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Robby Soave Reporter
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A federal agency is cracking down on stress-relieving, extra-strength magnets, branding them “dangerous and defective.” But two companies that make the magnets vigorously denied these charges, and will fight to keep their product in stores.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) filed an administrative complaint against Buckeyballs and Zen Magnets, which manufacture and sell specialty magnets made from rare earth metals. If swallowed, the strong magnets can cause serious internal injuries consistent with a gunshot wound to the gut, according to Scott Wolfson, a spokesperson for the CPSC.

“CPSC alleges that they [Buckeyballs and Zen Magnets] have sold a dangerous and defective product,” he said in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The CPSC believes the magnets are getting into the hands of young children, who may swallow them, and teenagers, who use them as fake tongue piercings, despite warnings on the packaging.

“What they are doing is putting magnets on top of their tongues and underneath their tongues, and they are so powerful that they appear to be attached, like a tongue piercing,” he said. “Well, that situation creates multiple magnets that can then be swallowed or inhaled.”

According to Wolfson, the CPSC used data from hospital reports to extrapolate that there were 1,700 cases of magnet ingestions leading to emergency room visits between 2009 and 2011. However, that number is an estimate. No deaths were reported in that time period, and only one recorded death was ever linked to rare earth magnets, back in 2005.

The makers of Zen Magnets insist their product hasn’t hurt anybody.

“There is no record of anyone ever ingesting our magnets,” said Shihan Qu, founder of Zen Magnets, in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation

Qu believes that Zen Magnets ran afoul of the CPSC because of the informal warning label his company uses.

Part of the label reads: “Warning: DO NOT SWALLOW MAGNETS. How old do you have to be to play with these? Dunno. 14 years old in the U.S. for a strong magnetic toy, unless it’s not a toy, then no age limit, but they’re fun magnets spheres, aren’t they a toy? Unless it’s a ‘science kit’ then the government age recommendation is 8+. But really, it’s whatever age at which a person stops swallowing non-foods. Strong magnets can cause fatal intestinal pinching. Place swallowing magnets on your don’t do list along with breathing water, drinking poison, and running into traffic.

“We would argue that it is more effective because it is informal,” said Qu, who noted that the warning label was shared over 400,000 times online.

But according to Wolfson, the labels are inadequate.

“It’s a type of product you take out of the packaging,” he said. “The consumers are making interesting designs and shapes with the product, and they don’t want to then break it down and put it back in its packaging. They are keeping it on their desk or they’re putting it out for display. Therefore, the warnings do not carry forward with the product.”

Andrew Frank, a spokesperson for Buckeyballs, said the company makes every effort to communicate the intended uses of the product to consumers.

“We have very specifically put forward our warnings, and we understand the dangers if young children get a hold of them, and that’s why we want parents to be responsible, we want young people who use them over the age of 14 to be responsible,” he said in an interview with The DC News Foundation.

With Zen Magnets and Buckeyballs refusing to back down, the next step is a hearing, where an administrative law judge could order the companies to stop selling their magnets and refund all purchases of them. The CPSC believes that this step is in the best interests of children.

“Our actions are motivated by the safety of children,” said Wolfson.

But some say the CPSC is overstepping its bounds.

“There are many products aimed at adults that can harm children. We obviously cannot ban all of them,” wrote Paul Rubin, a research fellow at the Independent Institute and professor of law and economics at Emory University, in an e-mail to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The fact that these products could cause serious injury is not enough for a ban. There must be actual evidence of harm before a ban can be justified.”

And not every member of the CPSC agreed with the complaint. Commissioner Nancy Nord voted against issuing it.

“I have concerns about the strength of the case,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Caller News Foundation.

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